Wine can be so pretentious with all the swirling, the smelling, and the hard to pronounce names - and how do you know when to swallow or spit? Which wine goes with crab cakes and which one goes with foie gras?
If you think you're going to get a snooty lecture about wine from Chef Chris Hastings when he makes appearance at the Savannah Food and Wine Festival on Nov. 11-17, you may be pleasantly surprised to hear his advice: "just pull the cork and enjoy it."
Sounds like Savannah's kind of wine drinker.
Hastings is considered a celebrity chef with his 2012 James Beard Foundation award for Best Chef in South, his Iron Chef win over Bobby Flay, his best-selling cookbook and television appearances and all the fancy accolades that go along with owning the award-winning Hot and Hot Fish Club in Birmingham, Ala.. But he is still down to Earth with his slow Southern drawl and humble gratitude for the status he has achieved among his peers.
"I'm too old for pretense in general," Hastings says. "I don't and I won't try to pretend. On one hand I love wine, but I grow weary of the pretense of wine. I enjoy the pulling of the cork and trying to learn and experience. That's fun. That's enjoyable."
Growing up a Lowcountry creek boy
His love of making meals a fun experience began at a very early age.
"You know, it's funny, some people don't grow up in a home where food is the center of the universe and celebrated every day, but I grew up like that," Hastings explains. "We always had a garden and Mom was always cooking dinner every night. She loved it and that's where I got my passion for it."
Hastings grew up in Charlotte, N.C., but says he discovered his appreciation for food during his family vacations to the Lowcountry at Pawley's Island S.C.
"On our trips down to the beach, we always stopped at a roadside stand and got fresh vegetables," he says. "My job as the creek boy for the family was to go out to the salt marsh and gather shrimp, crabs, oysters, gig flounders. I had a very idyllic situation where I could spend all afternoon in the salt marsh getting lots and lots of stuff.
"From the mid-60s to late 70s that place was loaded with lots of seafood. â€¦ It had a profound impact on my life. I was taught about food of place, food of season, â€¦ the importance of gathering with family to discover the hope and magic of food. The hope of food is to bring people together.
"It was a good childhood. I wouldn't trade it."
After high school, Hastings deferred his college acceptance and opted for culinary school at Johnson & Wales in Providence, R.I. After graduation he returned to the South and took a job at the Ritz Carlton in Atlanta in 1984.
He continued to develop his craft by learning to apply European influences to Southern cuisine, and he later relocated to Birmingham to work with Chef Frank Stitt of the acclaimed Highlands Bar and Grill. He also met Idie, his wife and business partner, there.
Honing his craft
It seemed Birmingham would be a permanent destination for the Hastings, but the pair relocated to San Francisco in 1989 to build on their education. Hastings cites his time in California as one of the biggest influences on his cooking techniques.
"My wife went to the California Culinary Academy there and I met one of my mentors Chef Bradley Ogden," Hastings says. He worked alongside Ogden at the newly opened Lark Creek Inn.
"It was the first time I got to have a direct relationship with what I gathered that day.
"At the time, it was cutting edge, and I was very much at home with this notion of meeting with local farmers... It was such an awesome experience to take what I knew as a child and to apply it to my profession.
"I was ordering food from the mainline distributors at my old job, but now I was going directly to the source and getting the fish from the fish market or the vegetables from the growersâ€¦ That was the 'aha' moment for me. It started a lifelong passion for locally sourced food and always finding the best of everything."
Despite Hastings eye-opening experience in California, the South was calling him back.
"We had our first son in San Francisco, and we felt we had to make a decision to move back South to raise our family or stay," Hastings explains.
The couple moved back to Birmingham in 1991 with the idea of opening a restaurant together.
"I had my sights set on Atlanta, â€¦but real estate went through the roofâ€¦ and everyone said, 'Why don't you just stay here?'"
Planting roots in Birmingham
Idie located the property that now houses their famed Hot and Hot Fish Club, the restaurant they opened in 1995. Luckily her eye for potential outranked her mate's.
"When I first saw the place, I thought it was a dump and wouldn't work, but she convinced me to go in there."
The Hot and Hot Fish Club takes its name from a Pawley's Island epicurean club which his great-great-great-great grandfather was a member. Hastings describes the cuisine as "contemporary Southern that takes influences from other cuisineâ€¦ We are a little bit of a mutt that way."
"We have our heart and where we stand but we love the intellectual exercise of traveling, reading, taking ideas from what we taste or see or experience and evolving our cuisine," Hastings says.
In the early years of the restaurant, Chris focused on the dinner menu while Idie used her pastry skills to focus on the dessert menu.
"We figured out early how to divide the workload," Hastings says. "It became quickly apparent I needed (Idie) to manage the office and front of house which left me teaching and cooking in the back.
"My advice to other couples running a restaurant is you gotta play to your strengths and let your spouse do the same and find ways to make your business successful."
Hastings says one of his proudest professional accomplishments is his 2012 James Beard Foundation award for Best Chef in the South.
"That's an award my wife and I have been working toward earning for a long time. It's the gold standard for peer recognition. It meant everything to us.
"It was such an honor to be recognized. We've been around for 16 years and we've worked hard for all of those years. After two nominations, we realized we were at the point where we either were going to win or fall off of that altogether. There is a shelf life to that award.
"It gives you street cred you thought you had but you realize you didn't have it until you have that award in your hand. We just feel very fortunate."
So what's next for Hastings?
He hints at a possible new restaurant in Birmingham, but won't give any specifics.
"What I see as the next opportunity is to create â€¦ something small and intimate. Small is the new big. It will be well thought out, casual, affordable and a fun experience."
And while Hastings seems focused on the food of his town, he also keeps an eye on his neighbors in Savannah.
"Historically Savannah has been behind the curve. If you look at the explosion of Southern food, you look back to the early 90s to see the South get exciting. In the early part of 2000 things began to really heat up. The whole Southern food movement has been on fire the past 10 years.
"Savannah is unique. It's always had that Lowcountry classic food, but unlike Charleston it didn't seem to develop an independent scene where a bunch of young chefs popped up and infused modern with Southern cooking, but that movement seems to be happening now."